The forgotten pop of Susan Fassbender

2 Mar

The rubbish dump of pop’s past is littered with almost countless lost artistes, forgotten careers and one hit wonders. There are as many fascinating stories to be found behind these perceived failures as there is behind the great chart successes. One such story that came to my attention recently is the tale of Susan Fassbender,  who I believe warrants a second look and listen if only because for British TV viewers of a certain age, she’ll be remembered for several appearances on Chegger’s Plays Pop and The Multi-coloured Swap Shop. That at least gives some of us a nostalgic glow, but the sad irony is that despite this association with an innocent childhood past, a little digging reveals that Fassbender’s life later took a darker path.

As DJ Steve Wright admits, in the edition of Top of the Pops 2 in which her archive footage is featured, Fassbender was and is an enigma.  This enigmatic quality is probably just down to the fact that she had a brief moment in the spotlight, came from such an everyday Northern background and then went back to it, leaving only her few singles for us to recall her by. She was a pretty woman, suggesting to me an image of what Nana Mouskouri might look like if she’d frequented ‘80s discos; her glasses were almost always in place, putting her at visual odds with the other female pop stars of the time, and accentuating her attractive ordinariness.

Apparently born near Bradford in West Yorkshire, Fassbender later teamed up with her best friend Kay Russell to produce their short lived recording career. She had studied classical piano, clarinet and timpani (later playing synthesizer); so says her Wikipedia page. Is this accurate? Maybe so, but with Fassbender there is always that element of doubt; after all we’re dealing with a girl who came and went from the public eye in such a short space of time. That is perhaps the key to her continuing (very) cult fame: if Susan could make it onto Top of the Pops, then surely we could have had a chance as well. Both she and Kay Russell looked as happy as pigs in muck when they appeared on the show (with fellow band members Gary Walsh and Mike Close); it was refreshingly unpretentious and gleeful. They even got to visit Europe and do the TV trail there; how glamorous it must have seemed to two girls from Bradford. There’s something about seeing them in that old footage that makes me wish them well, and is perhaps why I feel they’re ripe for re-discovery. It’s a happy image to see in these economically gloomy times.

But to be honest, there isn’t a great deal to re-appraise. Fassbender only released three singles, and she was dropped by her record label before an album materialised. After Kay Russell had played with Bradford New Wave band Ulterior Motives, she teamed up with Susan and they wrote lyrics and music together, eventually being signed to indie label Criminal Records, and were later signed by CBS. It was the single “Twilight Cafe”, released at the end of 1980, to which they practically owe whatever fame they have. An upbeat, catchy number, “Twilight Cafe” peaked at No.21 in the UK singles chart in early 1981. Two other singles followed, credited to both Fassbender and Russell (the vaguely ska-sounding “Stay” and the inane “Merry-Go-Round”; neither were anywhere near as good as “Twilight Cafe”, and there the quandary lies. Were Fassbender and Russell able to produce the more polished and sophisticated work that a long term chart career would demand? Unfortunately, we’ll never know.  Their existing music sounds slightly out of step with many of the other hits from the early ‘80s, despite their use of electronics, and was certainly a world away from any of the fashionable acts of the time. Their slightly silly and simplistic lyrics were never going to bring them any big praise, and their music was unsophisticated, but their melodies were extremely catchy and their fun appeal is wonderful to appreciate on Youtube all these decades later. The world would be slightly worse off without “Twilight Cafe” I think. It’s sad to think that they could have had a longer career, and that their song writing could have matured, but I don’t think either of them had the real driving passion to stick with a music career, deciding instead to concentrate on raising a family. Although both Fassbender and Russell continued to write together, nothing came of these later collaborations and they never recorded together again, despite remaining firm friends.

As Kay Russell mentioned in a recent blog (and later repeated on Wikipedia): “Years ago, Susan was my best mate, and we wrote songs both together and separately. It was a bit weird and strange – we seemed to be able to write in ANY style, when we were writing together. We did form the band, but the “powers that be” tried to tell us in which “style” we should write and perform, in order to make money. So, when there was a meeting of various A & R guys where we were rehearsing, these people said, “Give us something we can sell”. So we tried to do it, and that’s how “Twilight Cafe” came about”.

31 years after “Twilight Cafe” was a hit, I can look at Susan Fassbender as an inspirational story of what happens when someone from an unassuming background gets a chance to shine and do something extraordinary, even if only for a little while. We all have it in us, I think. In Susan’s case, perhaps she gave up on her dreams too soon, and ultimately gave in to her demons. The end of Susan’s story is not a happy one;  she committed suicide in 1991.

She was just 32.





Susan’s three singles with Kay are featured with TV footage on Youtube, along with B-sides and some unreleased demos. If anyone has any further information on Susan and her career, do please get in touch.


20 Responses to “The forgotten pop of Susan Fassbender”

  1. JK March 2, 2012 at 11:11 pm #

    Great piece mate. I loved Twilight Cafe since hearing it on a Radio 1 ‘Bet of the 80s’ night in 1989. Such a shame that ‘the powers that be’ get in the way of real talent in the name of crazy money. Check out Alison Moyet’s story for ridiculous record company antics – and of course ‘showbiz’ is littered with tragic tales. May Susan rock on in peace.

  2. lana April 14, 2012 at 9:31 am #

    hi ;I know the drummer,Gary Walsh.He had a mutual agreement with susan and left the band .
    He went on to form his own band with ex members of polydors EXCEL pop band , and after
    that a string of succesfull bands ..He;s also got quite a few recordings up his sleeve with different
    bands and artists

    • serendipity3864 April 14, 2012 at 11:10 am #

      Thanks for the information Lana, much appreciated. Will check out Gary’s work if possible; does he still live local to where Susan came from (Yorkshire?)

      • LANA May 23, 2012 at 8:16 am #

        hi; serendip ,gary is now based in PERTH,W.AUSTRALIA.
        before joining susan fassbender he was in a terrific three peice band called A1. with a bass player called Anthony Kelly.
        they made demo’s for record companys but they had a fall out or something with their lead singer ,so i heard.That lead singer will have the tapes if he wanted to put them on the net.
        would be interesting.

  3. Platform Whimsical April 26, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

    A 20 track ‘Demo Collection’ by Susan Fassbender and Kay Russell is released on Platform Records – Monday April 30th 2012 – available at all good download stores.

  4. KENNY May 23, 2012 at 7:56 am #

    I knew GARY when he played for Fassbender/Russel,Band.
    they played at the ROUNDHOUSE near leeds.he did a drum solo halfway through a song called ”WILD THING”.it sounded great.
    good to hear a solo at that time particulary when that was a era when drum solos seemed to be dying out. I also went to see them at bradford university but his drum solo was shortened ,i heard susan was responsible for can hear this shortened solo on u tube on ”wild thing”.there is a photo of a drummer with long hair though, i dont know who this dude is,must be when they first started playing.its not gary.
    gary is friends with Hank Marvins bass player who played guitar
    on Gerry Rafferty’s ”BAKER STREET”, also on STEELERS WHEEL ”STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU”.GARY had a session with the now famous ”BABY TUCKOO”

    • pete December 30, 2012 at 4:25 am #

      gary the drummer was responsible for the song ”HEAT ON THE STREET”.he came up with a different kind of beat that started the other
      musicians to write around it.

      • Kay Brown February 1, 2018 at 8:19 pm #

        slightly incorrect info, heat on the street was my introductory guitar riff, and gary did the drums to fit it. gary left my band ‘fassbender russell through no fault of his own. our manager got rid of him. susan and I were extremely upset to lose gary, he was a great drummer and still is, no doubt. consult platform records if you wish to hear the fassbender russell songs that were written, sadly without gary, that never made it onto vinyl. Kay Russell.

    • Kay Brown February 1, 2018 at 8:48 pm #

      Our first drummer,with the long hair, was called Pete. Can’t remember his surname. He was made to leave because the producer of Twilight Cafe, Pete Smith, told us that Pete’s drumming on the demo was ”all over the place’. It was the first time a drummer of ours was ‘got rid of’ because of pressures on management. We lost our second drummer, Gary, by the same means. Disgusting and totally unfair. Kay Russell.

  5. serendipity3864 May 23, 2012 at 11:18 am #

    Many thanks for the recent information Kenny and Lana. Absolutely fascinating to read. It’s obvious Susan was held in some esteem. There’s a wonderful, fuller picture of her life and music forming here, which fans would not have known. Thank you very much. Hopefully, this could form the basis for a further written project on Susan’s life and work in the near future, conducted with the respect she deserves.

    • Kay Brown February 1, 2018 at 8:38 pm #

      Hi, this is Kay Russell. Some information about Susan and our band is slightly inaccurate, but nothing major. I was thinking about writing about Susan’s life and work myself, but because of possible upset of the Baggio family (who she married into), I shall not be publishing this for the foreseeable future. Her daughters are very sensitive, and would possibly see this as a betrayal. However, there is NOTHING that I don’t know about Susan, her background and work from when I first met her to when I got the truly awful news that she had died. And it includes all that she told me about her origins, childhood, upbringing etc. I could answer a lot of questions about the whole lot, but it wouldn’t be fair on her family, so I restrict my comments mainly to experiences to do with music. Regards, Kay. P.S. Platform Records has released all unheard songs, via the internet. Consult the owner, Ewan MacKenzie. K.

      • Simon J. Croft @ serendipity3864 February 3, 2018 at 11:27 am #

        Thanks very much for taking the time to reply Kay. It’s really fascinating to hear about your time with Susan. Some of still know about you both and enjoy your music! I will check out Platform Records for sure.

  6. monkberry June 12, 2012 at 11:08 pm #

    New album of Fassbender demos just released on Itunes. Some brilliant songs!

  7. Rod Stewardson July 2, 2012 at 1:41 pm #

    I done a bit of promoting in early the 80’s and booked them for a gig at the Rendezvous club in Workington one Wednesday night just after Twilight Cafe charted, they were lovely people and a great band. Rod

  8. Dimorfik February 7, 2013 at 9:55 am #

    I knew her when she was at school, and when she worked in a Bradford music shop demonstating classical instruments such as harpsichord on a Saturday afternoon. She was very good at playing Baroque music which demonstrates her wide ranging musical tastes.

  9. gabriellabaggio7 August 29, 2016 at 8:39 pm #

    It’s incredibly unfair of you to suggest that they didn’t have ‘any real driving passion’ to sustain a real music career. From the age of six until the day she died, my mother dedicated her whole life to music. She was music. An incredibly talented musician with a rare, fiery personality, who touched people’s hearts wherever she went and will always be remembered.

    • Simon J. Croft @ serendipity3864 August 30, 2016 at 7:24 am #

      Well, an appraisal of any artist is largely based on their work if there’s no other information available and the music was all I had to go off at one stage. What I said was, “…I don’t think either of them had the real driving passion to stick with a music career, deciding instead to concentrate on raising a family”, which was suggested by what I knew about the way their lives went. I concede that may be wrong, but I think luck probably played a part too, and I don’t have all the facts about your mother’s music career in the ten years after “Twilight Cafe”. Absolutely agree that Susan was a talent worth discovering, which was my main aim in writing the article. It’s a shame more people haven’t heard of her, but that’s probably down to the limited recorded output. I’m also honoured that her daughter has read and responded to the article; so touched to hear from you. You seem very proud of your mother, and rightly so. 🙂

    • Kay Brown February 1, 2018 at 8:56 pm #

      Well done, I totally agree. regards, Kay.

      • Simon J. Croft @ serendipity3864 February 3, 2018 at 11:37 am #

        I’ll admit when I wrote the article, several years ago now, I was only familiar with three songs. Like I said, I absolutely agree that Susan (and you, Kay) had a talent worth discovering, which was my main aim in writing the article. A lot of conjecture went into it, so it’s good to be told the true story.

  10. Kay Brown February 17, 2018 at 12:23 pm #

    Once Susan and I stopped writing together for good, I understand that she wrote and sang at least 3 more songs. I never heard these, but she wrote to me from Switzerland to say that one of these was called ‘Only in Dreams’. It is possible that Gabriella Baguio may know of this further work, but anyone interested would have to ask her, since she wrote them without my help. Spelling mistake – Baggio. Kay.

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